Where the Otters Play
April 10, 2000
Today would be the day that changed Wade's life. He didn't know that when he woke up, but of course, no one knows when their eyes open to the light of a new day that a tsunami is coming. But fate being fate, it brings what it will bring. He didn't know that his parents would die that day, and his path would be forever changed. Death came sudden and unannounced. Like a rainstorm washing out a road, the ground gives away and there is nothing left but a hole of what used to be. Later he would try to remember what happened, details of the accident, but he could only recall waking up in the hospital, doctors and nurses walking in and out of his room, looking down at the green and white checkered floor tiles confused and in excruciating pain. A loud siren of crumbled sounds blew through his head and made it difficult for his eyes to focus. The sound was so distinct that he would later dream of it. Crying and confused, he grabbed the telephone and dialed his sister's phone number that he knew by heart. He laid the phone on his chest because the pain in his head was too severe for anything to touch it. When he heard what he thought was her voice but couldn't be sure, he said, "Willow, are you there?"
June 20, 2010
Wade's moped was not shiny, new, or fast, but it was his and he rode it happily. It was faded blue with a sturdy black leather seat. His thick legs were pushed wide on the bike, almost pinned out on each side from their sheer mass. His long bleached blonde hair whipped back in the wind, held down by a helmet covered in random stickers resembling a water bottle from an outdoor store. A faded red Igloo cooler strapped down on the back of the moped was covered in black Sharpie writing that read, Live Fast Die Young on one side, and I Read on another. An easy smile lined his face and overalls covered his tan, bare chest. Freckles spread across his shoulders. He could taste the June morning, thick with cut grass, black dirt, and morning dew sweet in his mouth. These early rides were his favorite and the best way to start his day. His mind didn't race from thought to thought. The clean air felt smooth in his lungs. Everything was as it should be and he felt genuinely happy. A two-year recovery chip rested in his pocket and felt solid against his leg. It was always there as a reminder of what is, what had been, and what could be. Today he was 756 days clean. It was the thing he was most proud of in his life.
The two-lane road was lined with hay fields in the valley that sat between two mountains covered in every shade of possible green. The sun was just rising, causing everything to glow and shimmer across the way, seemingly lit from within. The wind serenely moved a rolling wave across the wild-grown hay field. Watching all the beauty made him feel absolutely whole, at least for a few minutes, every day on his morning rides.
With each passing motorcycle, he flashed them the motorcycle wave: left hand out and down, pointing his forefinger at them. This was the standard road greeting amongst all motorcycle riders, usually used by people riding Harleys or street bikes. But on his moped he used it like he was one of them because in his mind he certainly was.
Summers in western North Carolina are warm, but not the in-your-face type of heat like some of its southern neighbors. The lush greenery created a mecca for drivers of all kinds and did not disappoint. The curvy roads and green scenery made it delightful to explore. In his mirror, he could see a line of cars had formed behind him, as he was going a mere thirty miles per hour in a fifty-five miles per hour zone. The moped looked like the Nascar pace car holding the others back in a line as they were roaring to get on with their day, but he didn't care. He savored the simpleness of his morning ride and enjoyed the clean exuberance it always brought. A blue Ford Fusion kept pulling out and crossing the double yellow line to see if they could pass, but never mustered up the courage to gun past him because the curvy road created treacherous blind spots that made it too dangerous for them to commit to passing. "Hesitation will get ya killed," he chuckled to himself as he saw the cars swerve in and out behind him and steadily continued on his way. Slowly moving up Highway 129, he made his way to work.
Thomas and Ty
Thomas and his son, Ty, rode slowly behind the moped. With one hand, Thomas firmly gripped the steering wheel, and with the other hand he impatiently tapped. Tapped the steering wheel, tapped the dash, and tapped the console. With a quick and frustrated movement, he pulled the car to the left and over the yellow line, and then back to the right, in line behind the moped again. Thomas could see no opening to safely pass, and he wouldn’t put them in danger to get around him. With each thick exhale of frustration, he pushed his dark hair back and pressed the skin on his forehead, applying pressure to his sinuses above his eyebrows. After traveling all the way from Boston, he couldn't believe he was trapped behind a crappy moped that wasn’t even going faster than thirty miles per hour. This idiot was going to make him late and he hated being late. He went by the idea that if you are not five minutes early then you are late. So, being truly behind was almost unbearable.
With a quick glance to the passenger seat, he watched Ty stare at his iPhone. He desperately hoped this trip would go well. They didn't get to spend a lot of time together, so Thomas felt it was important that everything went perfectly. Ty was scrolling through his social media accounts and hadn't really looked up since they landed at the Asheville Airport. It irritated Thomas. What could be so important on social media that he needed to look at it constantly? Why couldn’t he just be engaged with anything other than that stupid phone? He just didn't understand it, but he tried not to push too much. The last thing he wanted to do was start a fight, which he seemed to do so easily these days.
"What's this guy doing?" asked Thomas. "There must be laws against something like this."
Ty looked up, pushed his dark hair out of his face, and connected to what was happening in front of him. A moped was slightly struggling to pull its driver: a large man, maybe in his twenties or thirties, that looked like a roadie for the band Mumford and Sons. The driver cheerfully signaled to the passing motorcycles, and this made Ty laugh a bit. The side mirror revealed the line of cars forming behind them.
"Do you have to have a license for one of those?" Ty asked.
Ignoring his son's question, Thomas said, "We're going to be late."
The car pulled to a stop at the red light and slowly turned right into the town of Robbinsville, still following the moped.
"Who plants a cornfield in the middle of a town?" Ty asked, looking out the window. Green corn stalks rose out of the dark tilled soil directly behind the local Wendy's fast-food restaurant. Busted sidewalks with grass growing through the cracks lined the two-lane road. Ty looked down at the town from high in his seat. He was acutely aware that this was a peculiar place.
"That's a good question, I have no idea." Thomas replied.
They passed the national park sign for the Great Smoky Mountains, pointing them to stay on their current route. Thomas's left leg was so restless that he shook the car a bit. He was worried they were going to miss their fishing trip that he had booked three months ago in advance. He was worried that there would be a late fee. He was worried his son would be on his phone all day, which would annoy him, and he didn't want to be upset with Ty. That would just cause problems and that was not his intention. It had been a while since they had seen each other, and he wanted it to go perfectly. He was also worried he might get hungry later and tapped the pack of cheese crackers he had in his pocket, to make sure they were still there. Generally, he was just a worried person. Unconsciously, he clenched his jaw, then beeped his horn in frustration at the moped slowly trotting in front of them.
"I don't think they do that here." Ty said.
"Don't do what?" Thomas and Ty made eye contact for the first time in the last hour.
"Beep your horn. I don't think they do that here."
Thomas looked at Ty in disbelief and confusion. What did he know about it? And why wouldn't someone beep their horn? That’s ridiculous.
"Okay Southern connoisseur. Where did you hear that?” Thomas asked, with a snap in his voice.
"I think I read it on a meme somewhere," Ty said.
And with that, Thomas became quiet. He wasn't sure what a meme was, but he didn't want to say that in front of his son.
Tallulah Creek skirted through town behind the buildings and converged with Mountain Creek before it fed into the lake at the Massey Branch finger. Wade signaled with his left hand and made a turn towards the Massey Branch boat dock. Wild white trilliums grew on a shady overgrown bank in the curve, and small tree seedlings of yellow tulip and maple were trying to grow on the roadside but would ultimately be mowed down in a few weeks. Wade always considered those seedlings the most rebellious and inspiring of all the trees. In the least likely and most inhospitable of places, they tried to grow without regard to their future, asking for permission, or consideration of their place. They just grew. The sun disappeared as he drove back into a tighter mountain area. Behind him, the blue Ford followed. From the Hertz tag that hung on the front of the car, it was clear that it was a rental. Wade could see the driver was holding the car back and wondered why tourists had to be so aggressive. Weren't they on vacation? Gravel crunched and slid when he turned in and parked under the green painted sign, MB Marina.
In the gravel parking area, Wade pulled off the bungee cords that held his cooler in place. Thomas quickly parked, grabbed his blue rain jacket from the back seat, and jumped out of the car.
"Hurry up, Ty. Let's go." He said, slamming the door.
Thomas quickly cut across the parking lot as he and Wade made eye contact.
"Y'all aren't here for a fishin' trip, are ya?" Wade said, walking slowly in Thomas' direction. He held himself tall with an easy demeanor. Thomas slowed his power walk to a stop.
"Uh, yeah, actually we are." Ty was just catching up to them.
"Perfect timing! I'm Wade, your fishing guide for the week."
Thomas' shoulders shrugged in disappointment. Wade was not what he had envisioned but at least they weren't late anymore.
"Oh, okay. Nice to meet you. I'm Thomas and this is my son, Ty."
Wade's enthusiasm was palpable. Getting paid to fish was a dream come true and he had worked hard to secure one of the few guide licenses available in the area. He excitedly shook each of their hands with a smile that stretched across his face without any embarrassment that he wasn't wearing a shirt beneath his overalls.
"What kind of fish do y'all want to catch today?" Wade asked.
"Whatever's biting, I guess. "
"Well, I heard that with my bad ear," Wade shouted. “Come on, let's do it!"
The marina consisted of a wooden shack that housed a tiny store with shelves of snacks and plastic fishing lures of all types and sizes. Covered white plastic containers full of dirt and live bait were in the refrigerator next to the Coca Colas and Gatorades, and sticky strips hung from the ceiling to catch the buzzing flies. Down a steep slope, a stretch of the dock was lined with rental boats and a few private boats, all floating between the buoys. After purchasing a few items, Wade turned to Thomas and Ty.
"If you want to catch fish, you don't use live bait." Wade said. "That's for kids with bobbers. And we don't need no bobbers!"
"Okay." Thomas was actively listening.
"If you want to be an angler, gotta use some crank bait," Wade said.
"Crank bait?" asked Ty. "What's that?"
"Y'all are about to find out!"
Wade briskly walked out the side door toward the dock and the men followed behind closely.
The Fishing Trip
Thomas and Ty followed Wade down the steps to the marina. Each step was carved out of a steep bank that was constructed out of railroad ties and gravel. Despite Wade's stocky frame, he was sure-footed and moved quickly. Thomas noticed a scar that ran up the back of Wade's arm all the way to his back. Behind him, Thomas slowly planted a solid step before cautiously taking the next step. Admittedly, his knees were not what they used to be as too many years of tennis had banged them up. Patiently, Ty moved behind his father. He habitually checked his phone and noticed that he didn't have a signal, so he took a few pictures of the mountains resting behind the water and then a few selfies with the MB Marina shack behind him. Once they reached the marina, Thomas noticed it was tied on two ends to the posts on the shore that allowed it to slightly sway with the wake. The dock itself moved under each of their steps and required concentration so they wouldn't fall into the water, except Wade, who gingerly bounced down the gangway. Carrying a cooler without regard to the movement beneath his feet, Wade stepped onto a long narrow bass boat. It had two seats in the back and one in the front that was small and triangular that sat high on a pole. The boat floor was covered in a short gray carpet and the seats were faded gray with a black stripe. Glitter sparkled in the blue paint covering the hull. Long narrow storage compartments held several fishing poles and smaller square ones held the different tackle boxes. "Welcome aboard, gentlemen,” Wade said with a hand output to aid an uneasy Thomas across the threshold. “We got twenty-one feet of solid fishing gold right here beneath our feet.”
Each compartment had a specific purpose and he pointed each of them out. "Here’s where we store all the life vests and first aid kit, and here's the fire extinguisher in the event of a fire… And this compartment’s the garbage can. I don't know what it was originally made for but it's a garbage can now. Don't y’all think it's the perfect garbage can?" The men agreed that it seemed like the perfect garbage can.
A silent morning fog still clung to the water as the sun worked to burn it away. The morning air held a palpable silence with only the water whispering across the rocks on the shore. The men stood on the front of the pointy boat with their poles angled down. A trolling motor hanging off the front of the boat silently navigated them around the shallow coves. Initially, Thomas had been trepidatious regarding Wade's ability to guide them, with his strange looks and all, but he had proven his ability to fish. He even thought Ty might be enjoying their trip.
"Wade, how do you keep this carpet clean?" Thomas asked, gesturing to the floor. It seemed odd to him that a boat completely exposed to the elements would have carpet flooring. None of the boats in Boston had carpet on them. He didn't even like carpet in houses because of the germs it held. Enthusiastically, Wade started in: "Let me tell ya', once or twice a year I get a can of Barbasol, you know, the men's shaving cream. And just rub it in real good and spray it down with a pressure hose, and bam! Comes out looking bran' new."
Thomas looked at the carpet trying to think about what would be in shaving cream that could clean the carpet, but nothing came to him. So, he stood nonplussed, with a rather blank look, and nodded. He pulled at the neck of his new Orvis fishing shirt.
"Okay,” was all he could say.
The men fished around the lake’s banks, as the boat slowly glided along. Thomas felt the boat was a bit too small for all of them, but he came to understand that it was necessary to get in the small corners and tight spots on the lake.
"How did you learn to fish?" Ty asked.
Wade was busy untangling a line with his nimble fingers, his foot working the trolling pedal. He didn't look up when he answered.
"Oh, my dad taught me. We used to go all the time. Been fishing since I was a youngin'."
"Oh, nice. Do you still go a lot together?" Thomas asked, hoping to connect the dots for Ty that this could be a lifelong activity for them to enjoy together, which was really the reason he had planned this whole trip in the first place.
Wade looked up. "Oh, my dad passed away a while back."
Thomas looked at Wade like he was a real person for the first time that day. "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't know." Thomas hated talking about dead people. It made him uncomfortable. He never knew what to say or how to handle it. Like, what do you say about a dead person that you never knew? So, he just said as little as possible, trying to avoid any prolonged conversation on the subject.
"That's alright," Wade said.
"How did he die?" Ty asked.
"Car accident," he said.
"That's a tough break."
"Ain't it though?"
Wade worked steadily on the tiny knots on the fishing line resting in his hand. A fish took off on Ty's line and his pole bent down towards the water. Thomas was relieved by the change of events.
"Pull back to set the hook!" Wade yelled.
"Not like that!" Thomas snapped, reaching over to take the rod from Ty.
"I got it, I got it!" Ty yelled. As he jerked the pole back and away from his father’s reach, the hook firmly lodged inside the fish’s mouth. The muscles in his forearms flexed as he worked the fish, letting it run and pulling it in until he reeled it to the side of the boat. Wade was there with a net in hand and gently scooped the fish up. He expertly grabbed the spotted bass, pushing the fins down so they wouldn’t poke his hands, and worked the hook out of its mouth with the precision of a surgeon. Wade showed Ty how to hold the fish by its lip to avoid hurting it. The fish jutted and Ty fought the urge to drop it. Life fluttering in his hands was excitingly satisfying. The scales were somehow smooth yet rough at the same time. While Ty worked to hold onto the fish, Thomas snapped a photo with his phone. When he put the fish back in the water and let it go, it quickly disappeared down beneath the surface. The whole thing was quick, but the excitement lingered.
"Nice work, gentlemen," Wade said. "Nice work."
Ty and Thomas seemed pleased. Thomas was glad that his son seemed happy, which lately seemed rare. He cast his line out and thought about Ty when he was young and how simple things were. All he had to worry about was making sure he had the right toy and blanket, but now things were way more complicated. He didn't know if his son was really happy. It would have helped if he had talked to him, but Ty could be stoic. He worried about his future, like would he make enough money to support himself or would he find someone that he loved that also loved him. He was hopeful that he would make good life decisions. Also, he was really happy with his new Patagonia pants that he bought for this trip. They were high performance and the guy at REI was right about them. Worth every penny. He wasn't sure about these strappy sandals yet, but they were the new thing, so he wanted to try them too. After a few minutes of staring into the water contemplating his new clothes and their technical prowess, he looked up and saw a naked man standing on the red clay bank. The man, whose hair and beard were long and disheveled, gave an unapologetic wave. Soon, Thomas noticed an older lady nearby, also sans clothes. He stopped casting and stared.
"Hey dad, can you send me that picture?" Ty was swiping open his social media app. "Dad?" He asked again, when he got no response from Thomas.
Thomas snapped back into focus and yanked the fishing pole. The hook snapped and stuck into Ty's hand.
"Ow!" Ty screamed in pain. "What the hell are you doing?"
Thomas was quickly hovering over Ty and checking his hand. His face was full of worry.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry! There were these naked people, and I was confused. Do you need stitches? Let's go straight to the emergency room and get you a tetanus shot."
"Did you say naked people?" Ty looked around and saw the couple on the bank.
"Oh, those are the Rainbows," Wade said, with a first aid kit in hand. "They come through every few years." He looked at them on the bank for a few seconds. "The burden of clothes must be too heavy for them, so I guess they came here to free themselves."
"Rainbows?" Ty asked.
"Yeah, they're some kind of hippy group. They gather here occasionally," Wade said.
"They look kinda happy." Thomas said. He wondered if he could ever do something like that and he immediately decided that, no, he couldn't. Showering in the outdoor shower at the beach was too open for him and made him uncomfortable. He was envious of their ability to be free in a way that he would never let himself. Public nudity was just too much for him. The three men stood looking at the two naked people on the bank. Each, in their own way, committed it to their long-term memories.
Wade worked carefully on Ty's hand, easing the hook out. It wasn't too deep so there wasn't any need for immediate medical attention. Just some pliers and patience.
"Once, I got one of these in my forehead. Not cool," Wade said, pointing to the scar above his left eyebrow. "I did it to myself, which makes it even sadder."
The men nodded in agreement. Somehow, extreme stories were not as good if they were self-induced.
"A beer would be great right now," Ty said, shaking out his hand once it was free from its invader.
"It's barely after ten," Thomas said.
Wade opened the cooler he was sitting on and exposed its contents of fancy assorted mineral and soda waters in glass bottles and aluminum cans. "A beer's great, but have you ever had, like, a really great drink of water?" asked Wade. "It'll blow your mind."
Willow- June 20, 2010
Each of her hands tightly gripped the leather-wrapped steering wheel. Her spine was rigid, clenching her back into the form of a straight line. Easily, the black Subaru crossed the double yellow line on the road, and she passed the white car in front of her going five under the speed limit. Once she was free of the restraint holding her back, she was going fast. Willow drove with a certain force of arrogance mixed with strength, like a prize fighter in their prime. Really, she was going too fast for these roads. But at six A.M., she knew most people were still fast asleep. She loathed the summer traffic and left home extra early to avoid it. The motorcycle riders often didn't abide by normal traffic laws and rode in groups that often made it impossible to get around them. It wasn't the fact that they broke the rules that bothered her. Rules were mere suggestions in her world, but when they encumbered her commute, then she had a problem. The radio was turned up loud with some metal band pushing a fast beat through her. The sun broke through her windshield, she squinted against it, and pulled the sun visor down to protect her eyes. She didn't want to be up this early going to a job that she was getting tired of. She liked her job sometimes, but most mornings she wasn't ready to like anything. Mornings were meant for coffee on the porch while wrapped in a blanket, not talking to anyone, and definitely not solving problems. She drove on the road she had driven so many times before. A road she had ridden on long before she could even walk. A road she was frankly tired of.
Working in the service industry during the tourist season was exhausting. Her employees worked long hours and faced constant problems. People quitting, people getting fired, guests complaining, things breaking, and shipments late. It was the season of something always going wrong, but she always made it work. It was also the fast season, and she enjoyed the pace. In her mind, she ran through everything that needed to be accomplished that day, and even though she tried to block it out until she got into the work parking lot, she couldn't not think about it. A wide gravel parking lot sat empty on the left side of the road just ahead of her. Quickly and sharply, she turned the wheel, sliding the car into the gravel. With one quick move, she pulled the emergency break up and the car began to spin. Willow couldn't breathe. It felt like she was free-falling through space. She could no longer hear the radio. She could no longer hear her thoughts. She was spinning through a screaming silence. This was not an unfamiliar experience. She knew what she was doing and what she was looking for. Just a few seconds of not thinking, a few seconds of freedom. Dust filled the air when the car came to a stop. Her breaths came fast, and everything came back into focus. She put her head on the steering wheel, laughed to herself, and screamed as loud as she could into the void of life. For a moment, she felt better. She felt alive and had briefly forgotten her problems. Breathless, she sat with her eyes closed, and only looked up when she heard the police sirens.
* * *
Blue lights flashed over Willow's eyes. "Shit." That was all she could muster. She rolled her window down to greet the uniformed officer that was soon standing next to her car.
"Willow,” said Officer Roberts, wearing a stern face.
He stood there shaking his head in condemnation. It worked. She felt ashamed, but more than shame she felt lucky. Lucky it was the one officer in this town that she had gone to high school with. His younger sister, Sara, had dated Wade at one point and their grandmothers attended church together. There are perks to being from a small town and this was certainly one of them.
"Willow, you know, you got to stop doing that," he said, in a tone that was fatherly in nature. She hated when men used that tone with her.
"I will. I was just blowing off some steam." she said, blinking her long eyelashes. Her grandmother had always told her to blink and act stupid anytime the police were involved. That advice had worked well for her throughout the years.
"Have you ever thought about yoga or maybe mountain biking? I hear it works wonders for stress. You still run?" He asked.
"No, not much anymore."
"Well, maybe it's time to pick it back up." He spit tobacco juice on the ground. Once, he told the entire football team that Willow was easy because he was mad that she turned him down. They both knew the truth about the matter.
"I'll consider it." She smiled at him.
"You know Casey drinks this de-stress tea that her sister is selling. I think it's one of those own your own business deals, but she likes it. It's called Stressless Green Tea. Let her know if you ever want to try it. She's got lots of samples. Or you could even sell it if you like."
"Huh, I may have to check that out," she said, trying her best to be agreeable.
Kevin patted the top of the car. "Alright, tell Ms. Laura I said I want a can of her freezer jam."
Kevin spit once more and flashed her a wave as he walked back to the police cruiser. Willow took a breath and gathered her thoughts. She leaned out the window and said, "Hey, thanks Kevin." He turned back, gave her a nod and spit once more. The sound of the tobacco juice splattering on the ground made her stomach turn. She could smell the leather and mint from inside her car.
“Hey Willow, that new state trooper’s been sitting at the Dollar General that was the old Big D gas station.” He looked away while he spoke. “Thought you might want to know.”
As she watched the police cruiser pull away, she couldn't help but remember when Kevin let live chickens loose in their high school on senior prank day.
He ran flapping his arms like wings while screeching gobble sounds as the chickens ran wild. Feathers and chicken poop covered the hallways. The memory made her smile, and she considered that the people you go to high school with do eventually grow up and get real jobs one day. Some even have mini versions of themselves. Even the ones she didn't think would ever make it, did indeed somehow make the transition to adulthood. It was hard to imagine that Kevin would become a person in an authoritative position that would now offer her stress advice, but alas here they were. It's amazing what a uniform and badge can do for a person.
Maybe she would start running again. She knew it would make her feel better, but sometimes making things better is not what she was aiming for. She never understood why she would run if there wasn't a race. Races could be won. But running for fun didn't sound so fun. Somewhere inside, she did feel a pinch of sadness when she thought about running, and she understood that she missed it. After a few moments, she turned on her car, cleared the past from her mind, and pulled back onto the main road.
November 10, 1993
The first time Willow got to drive on the main road she was thirteen. Her mother drove her up a curvy mountain road that crossed from North Carolina into Tennessee, stopped on a pull-off, and switched seats with Willow. It was dark, cold, and no one else was on the road. She was giddy at the opportunity. Driving was the door to her freedom. She could feel her chance to go anywhere and do anything she wanted was so near when she slid behind the wheel. Her hands lightly touched the freedom of the steering wheel. The curves came quickly but she learned to maneuver that old Tahoe to stay on the road. Her lights shone through the trees as they went into another curve. She could feel the weight move and the pull of each turn.
"Stay off your break as much as you can but break a little before going into the curve...Give it a little gas going in the curve.... Easy, now, easy... Always look ahead...It's easier to push it when you need to than to hold it back so stay off your gas." Her mother guided her. "You don't want your brakes to go out."
When they got to the dam, her mother asked her to pull over. The freedom ride was over, but her exuberance remained. All she could think of was getting her license and going anywhere. Anywhere but here and doing whatever she wanted to do without the supervision of her parents and the all-watching eyes of her town. She couldn’t wait to get out.
In the distant future, the road they traveled on that night was listed in Car & Driver magazine and the world flocked to it. It was branded and renamed. What the locals had always called The Mountain was now called The Dragon. You can’t go across without someone sitting on the road's edge taking your picture, like a ride at Disney. The whole area changed around it. Once, while waitressing at the lodge during college, Willow listened to a few guys talking about the times they had clocked on The Dragon, which was the amount of time it took to drive from the bottom of Tapoco Dam to the Chilhowee Lake. It was an eleven mile stretch of relentless switchback curves. They asked her if she had ever driven it. She smirked. "Listen, I used to take driver’s ed up there. You know, the car with the little brake on the passenger side and the yellow sign on the top. So, you know, don't take yourself too seriously." Willow always was direct.
Willow at Work
June 20, 2010
The desk in Willow's office took up most of the small space. Self-help quotes littered the walls with things like, Everything in Life is Temporary and For Every Minute You are Angry You Lose 60 Seconds of Happiness and This Too Shall Pass. She studied Human Resources at Western Carolina University, but her job at the Tapoco Lodge was more of an all-encompassing position. She managed all the daily operations, staffing, as well as filing IRS reports and helping with health insurance questions. It didn't leave room for her to make a lot of friends at work, not that she was ever really good at that. Even the people she had known all her life kept their distance. It was isolating, especially since all her non-work friends were now married with children and doing the family thing or had long since moved away. Since her social life was null and void, she worked tirelessly at the lodge. She liked that the place needed her, and when there were problems, she fixed them. Something always demanded her attention. There was one particular issue she had to handle today, and she was eager to figure out what was going on. She opened a small square window in her office and let the sound of the nearby river wash through the space. Ivy covered the old red brick lodge, and a new patio adorned with comfortable seating and a bar stretched out to the river's edge. Willow's office was on the main floor, behind the check-in desk area. The sound of the river hummed constant everywhere on the property, including her office. After a while, it became white noise, but it helped her focus because she couldn't hear any nearby distractions. She turned on her computer, put in her password and checked her nails while she waited for it to start up. After the computer slowly made its way to the home screen, she pulled up a video feed that was recently installed at various places around the property. As she scanned the images, she sipped her coffee, but it tasted a bit too weak for her liking. She would talk to the kitchen staff about that today.
"Tanya, Tanya, Tanya." She said as she watched a video feed from the secret stockroom camera. Things had been disappearing. First, the inventory stock for the minibar items was off. So far off, in fact, that it flagged in her computer system to recast her budget numbers. Then, costs started running high for housekeeping items. Willow didn't track toilet paper and shampoo inventory, but she had a running cost estimate per month of what they normally consumed. However, now customers were complaining about things missing from their rooms, which was a different level of problem. She knew she had a thief working for her, so she checked the video feed every day and had new cameras put into new spaces unknown to the staff. These little investigations made her feel like the character Jessica Fletcher from Murder She Wrote, the crime solver series she watched with her grandmother throughout her childhood played by Angela Lansbury. Willow had always thought her character was so classy with her smart short hair and incredible instincts. So unassuming, but she always solved the mystery. Her normal day to day was more just pushing papers, but mystery solver was so much more fun.
Willow paused the video and the image showed Tanya putting small bottles of vodka into her bag in the supplies closet, clearing out the entire box. Taking a few bottles here and there, only occasionally, she would have let slide. But whole boxes, she would have to do something about. Dread came over her because she knew she would have to fire her. She didn't enjoy firing people, unless, of course, they deserved it. Which in this case, Tanya did deserve it, but deep down she felt sorry for her. It was known that her situation was not great. Willow also felt a bit smug that, like Ms. Fletcher, she had found her culprit.
Willow knew that some people called her cold, but that didn't bother her. She didn't understand what was cold about being truthful. In the face of confrontation, she preferred to push straight into it, which she was good at. No reason to beat around the bush, it just prolonged the inevitable. Personally, she preferred direct and honest communication, and that is how she approached most things in life. When it came to guests at the lodge, she tried to bring calmness to the situation, whatever that may be. But of course, she was practical too. She would wait until the end of her shift before firing Tanya, so at least the rooms would be cleaned. Her pragmatic side was always there, helping her keep things progressing forward. She took a sip of her coffee and her face soured. "Who do I have to fire to get a decent cup of coffee around here?"
Willow heard a knock on her office door. Tanya stuck her head in the office and smiled a familiar smile.
“They said you wanted to see me at the end of my shift,” Tanya said. Her body inched into the room.
“Yes, come in. Shut the door behind you,” Willow said, and put away the papers she was working on so that there was a clear line of vision between her and Tanya. Willow had learned to be quick and to the point. No one likes being fired, even if they are guilty of theft. She had also learned that she needed to be aware of her face because her natural resting face resembled a scowl. She forced a smile to ease the situation and other peoples’ perceptions.
“Tanya, it’s come to my attention that you have been stealing from the lodge.” Silence stung the air. Tanya sat taut and still in her chair. She was no longer smiling, and her hands were clasped tightly against her boxy, blue maid top.
“That’s not true,” Tanya said. She picked her story line and leaned into it. “I ain’t done nothing wrong, Willow. So, what’s this all about?”
Willow looked thoughtful as she reflected on Tanya’s words. “Listen, I’m not going to argue with you. You can come clean or not. That’s on you.”
A hard line formed across Tanya’s face. “I ain’t no thief.”
Willow shook her head, her inner voice talking through her body. She turned and clicked on her computer and tilted her screen where it was in clear view of Tanya. Tanya leaned forward to see what was being presented to her. The video played clearly showed Tanya stashing items into her bag. Tanya’s face fell still and cold. She leaned back in her chair.
“You’re a real bitch. You know that?” she asked, and got up and walked out of the office, slamming the door behind her. Security was waiting outside to escort her out of the building to make sure she didn’t steal anything or cause a scene. Willow let the sting of her words slide off her and imagined them being a drop of rain rolling down her leg. Quickly it was gone, and it was over. She pulled out her paperwork and started reading again where she had left off.
Later That Day
The three men walked onto the patio area of The Tapoco Lodge to get a late lunch after a day on the lake. Ty and Thomas were waiting for their check-in time, so they left their bags in the car. The Cheoah River runs beautifully over large mossy boulders directly next to the side patio, where you can get a pizza and a drink all while watching kayakers hit class IV whitewater rapids. They chose a table with a pleasant view and an umbrella for shade.
"Tapoco. Is that a Cherokee word?" Thomas asked.
"No, Tapoco ain't but Cheoah is. I've heard it means where the otters play or the place of the otter. But I'm not sure. I, unfortunately, don't speak the language and I ain’t tryin’ to speak for nobody. Know what I mean?" Before anyone had time to respond, he said, “But TJ over there speaks Cherokee. Hey TJ, what does Cheoah mean in Cherokee?” Wade shouted over to the bar tender. TJ was a tall man with short dark hair.
“Wade, I told you to stop asking me that.” TJ shouted back, shaking his head no.
“Okay,” Wade shouted back. “He won’t tell me," he said to the men at the table.
"Interesting. See a lot of otters out here?" Thomas asked.
“Oh, the elusive otter. No, but I’m always looking. So, what did y'all think about the fishing?" Wade asked, while tilting each glass, and pouring each beer carefully to avoid foam. Then, he poured some Fiji water for himself. He took a large drink and sighed loudly with appreciation.
"Not going to have a beer with us?" Ty asked.
"Oh, no. I don't drink," Wade said, with a smile.
Ty didn't know anyone who didn't drink, so this seemed odd to him. But Wade was certainly a different kind of guy.
"Nope." Wade said and smiled. He offered no other explanations.
"Well, the fishing was great! Really exceeded my expectations." Thomas said.
Ty took a drink of his beer. The cool, familiar bitterness washed over his tongue; the comfort of glass rested in his hand. He appeared delighted in its strength.
"It was really cool watching them come up and hit that lure," Ty said. His arm came up like he was snatching something from the air. This was the most animated he had been all day.
"You can always leave me a Yelp review," Wade winked, and took another drink of his water.
"I would if I had a cell phone signal." Ty was checking his phone, trying to connect to the Wi-Fi at the lodge.
"Yeah, you're not going to find much of a signal out here. The regional paper doesn't even deliver out here anymore, so information moves slow. Unless you find some Wi-Fi and get on Facebook. That's where the news is here." Wade took out his phone and checked for a Wi-Fi signal. "Here's the lodge's Wi-Fi information. I'll air drop it to you."
"Oh, thanks man."
"But, you know, the problem with Facebook is it's full of confirmation bias and naive realism, so you have to take it with a grain of salt." He chuckled to himself. He was having fun.
"Confirmation bias? What's that?" Thomas asked, while he organized the sugar packets and sugar substitute packets because they were mixed up and not separated by color. Wade started getting wound up. He loved to talk. He debated for fun. Sometimes he would take multiple sides of an argument or play devil's advocate because it would get people going. But mostly, people never knew what he actually believed.
"Confirmation bias is when you find stuff and remember it because it confirms your ideas." His hands were vividly active.
"Don't we all do that?" Ty asked. "Like, isn't that human nature?"
Ty was feeling more refreshed with each cold swallow. The sun had really zapped him on the lake, but he was interested in what Wade was saying. He leaned into the conversation.
"Great point. Yeah, people tend to egregiously do that but it's short-sighted. Like, if you're only looking for stuff to confirm your own thoughts, and ignoring everything else, you're edging out the truth. You're just telling yourself you're right and pattin' yourself on the back. But boy does that ego feel good. But add Facebook to that and it goes up to a brand-new level. Like, people are just screaming their thoughts into the World Wide Web."
"Yeah, it can get pretty bad out there at times. What was that other term you used?" Ty asked. "Naive..."
"Oh, Naive Realism."
"Yeah, I'm not familiar with that one either. What does it mean?"
"Well, it's like when you think people who disagree with you are stupid or obviously don't understand the truth. Instead of trying to understand their perspective or considering that you may be wrong. No one's really interested in learning on social media. Obviously, I'm not a fan."
The men sat and pondered the presented ideas and after a few chuckles, Ty said, "I wonder what Carl Jung would think about Facebook?"
Both young men laughed but then grew quiet as they considered the possibilities.
"So, you're into Psychology?" Thomas asked. He had just finished straightening up the table and putting everything where it belonged.
Freckles covered Wade's nose and his cheeks were flustered red from the sun. Sunglasses with lenses that were mirrored blue, and purple covered his hazel eyes. "Well, inadvertently. I, uh, had some exposure to it so I just read some on it. But I'm really more into Biology."
"Ty is a Chemistry major," Thomas said proudly.
"Yeah, for now. I don't really know for sure yet," Ty said, and fidgeted in his seat.
"Who does?" Wade questioned.
"So, what about tomorrow?" Ty asked, changing the topic. He didn't like talking about the future with his dad. He really had no idea what he wanted to do, and his dad was always pushing for a plan. Pushing for what was next, whatever that was. But he didn't know what he wanted today, more or less tomorrow, and it really stressed him out thinking about it.
Wade glanced at the river to quickly check conditions. "Tomorrow, we'll be fly fishing. Different process, same results."
"Is there anything we should prepare for?" Thomas asked.
Wade sat back in his chair and considered the question. His hand grazed his barely there beard.
"Well, the water level will be lower tomorrow. But you will need to be careful on the rocks because they can get slippery. And keep an eye out for snakes."
Thomas couldn't help but be worried about the fly-fishing trip the next day. Snakes and rocks could play out a thousand different ways. He smiled and conveyed that he was listening and that everything was okay but was soon distracted by the dangers of kayaking as he watched an empty kayak wash down the river. Carnage from an upstream rapid where in a moment of danger a kayaker had pulled their spray skirt and swam to safety. Tomorrow they would be on that river, and it immediately made him queasy. His age had taught him how quickly things could change, but his son's youth had not learned this lesson, and that frightened him. As they were talking, Thomas noticed an exceptionally beautiful brunette walking across the patio. She was hard to miss. She was wearing black pants and a white polo shirt that revealed the Tapoco Lodge logo. Long curls loosely draped down her back. People looked at her when she passed. Quickly, she made her way across the patio.
"Wow." Thomas said to himself. And then, he quickly realized she was walking straight towards them.
"Hey, how are y'all doing?" Willow stood at the end of their table with a formal smile. Her name tag signaled this was her place of work, but this didn't feel like a work-related conversation to Thomas.
"Good. Good. Caught a few fish this morning and now we're just getting some grub." Wade said. His jovial disposition shined. Willow looked at the beer on the table and then back at him. They locked eyes for a long, silent moment.
"Will you need a ride later?" She asked.
"That wouldn't be bad. I’ve got a lot of gear with me." Thomas watched in disbelief. The physical disparity between this woman and this man was so intense, they seemed odd next to one another, but yet somehow connected. He looked for imperfections and didn't see any. Maybe the crystal she wore around her neck was a sign of weakness. The idea that rocks could be powerful seemed ridiculous to him. But he could overlook it for her.
"I'll find you when I get off from work." She said and turned to walk away. "Y'all have a good one." Cold but polite. Silence covered the table, but the men nodded in her direction.
Ty and Thomas waited for an explanation of who she was, but Wade offered none. After a few moments, Ty broke the air.
"Uh, who was that?"
Wade was almost caught off guard by the question as he had been taken into a trance by a hypnotic eddy swirling in the river. He had always loved the symbolic nature of eddies, where the water flow turned and went back up stream and created a calm center. "Oh, Willow. She's my sister."
"That's your sister?" Surprise draped his words.
"Yup, sure is."
After a moment, Ty gathered the courage that only a young man in his twenties has before he has been churned up and spit out by life, and confidently asked, "Is she single?" Because why not shoot his shot?
Wade looked at him for a second, searching his face for something that Ty didn't fully understand.
"Well, that depends." He rubbed his hands together in small circles.
"How big of a masochist are you?"
Wade and Willow
Later That Night
After the handlebars were lowered, the moped fit surprisingly well in the back of Willow's Subaru. With the trunk open and a few blue tie-down straps, it sat precariously secured as they drove down a curvy two-lane road. Fishing poles were straddled over the console in the front of the car until they bumped up against the windshield and ran all the way into the back seat.
"Maybe slow down a bit?" Wade said.
Willow smoothly geared down without letting off the gas, throwing her RPMs up and jolting Wade forward against his seatbelt. The moped banged against something in the back. He grunted a bit which made her laugh discreetly under her breath.
She drove home on a road that she had driven so many times before that she could blindly navigate it. The slope of each curve, the angle to enter, and at what speed. She felt everything when she drove, but most of all, she felt free. Wade put on some music and turned it up loud. They rode with the windows down and in silence the rest of the way home. A slew of summer life plastered against the front of her car.
Willow and Wade had inherited their family home when their parents were killed in a car accident. When it happened, Willow was a sophomore in college. Wade was a senior in high school with an academic scholarship to the University of Tennessee that fall. Willow went on to finish her degree in Human Resources, while commuting to school every day, and Wade never left the county. Now, they lived in the house together and had turned their parent's room into a meditation room, complete with fish tanks, quilts, yoga mats, spider plants, and jade plants. They had even added insulation for noise reduction. A proper tribute to their parents, to remember them but to forget them as well. They needed to forget a little to continue to live. Recently, they turned their bathroom into a sauna.
When they arrived home, Willow went inside to change out of her work clothes, preferring a t-shirt and shorts at home, while Wade unloaded his moped and propped it up in the carport. He carefully organized his fishing gear in the storage room. The house was a white one-level rancher with creek rock on the bottom section. It was built in the seventies with a carport attached. Willow examined the house, checking for anything out of place. Then she looked through the mail laying on the butcher block countertops. The power bill was due, so she put a sticky note on it to remind Wade to pay it. A dehumidifier ran in the corner, thinning the air and slowing the decay the environment demanded. She looked over the random contents on the coffee table, which included a McDonald's receipt and some loose pocket change. With a slap of the hand, she fluffed and straightened the navy throw cushions that had tiny orange flowers embroidered around the edges. She moved Wade's sandals out of the walkway to the shelf next to the front door. Her mother had taught her this routine to help her with keeping up with stuff and keeping things organized. Unfortunately, Wade seemed to have never received that lesson. She checked the refrigerator to see what they needed from the store. She never understood how Wade could go through so much milk, but alas they needed it again. After she was satisfied with her surroundings and had completed her checks, she quickly threw her work clothes in the washing machine. And in a matter of seconds, poured a glass of wine and went out the back door onto a deck that overlooked a small field that their neighbor farmed. Four blue plastic Adirondack chairs were lined up across the porch and a covered hot tub was attached to the end. The air was refreshing with a hint of coolness. Clouds covered the stars, and the sky was dark. There was not a streetlight in sight. She relaxed back in the chair. The first mosquito had already landed on her leg and was feeding on her. They paid to have their yard sprayed to keep mosquitos back, but nothing could completely stop them. They even followed them inside. She smacked the sting on her leg and wiped away the smashed bug and her blood across her skin with the palm of her hand. She breathed in the solitude of the night, slowly exhaling it out.
"Why are you sittin' out here in the dark?" Wade said. He walked out onto the deck.
"You know I love the dark,” she said.
Wade fumbled through a basket of random stuff that sat on a small table against the house, looking around for something but was having trouble without a light on. He pulled out his phone to assist, flipping on the flashlight app.
"When it's so dark you can't even see yourself, that's the best. I always miss it when I'm in the city with light pollution everywhere. You can never disappear there."
"Feeling a little poetic tonight, Walt?" Wade asked, still searching for something.
"I prefer Oliver myself."
Wade continued his search and Willow took a drink of wine.
"But when you're in the city you have the city," he said.
At last, he found the long grill lighter he was searching for and lit the citronella tiki torch burners lining the front of the porch. So much for dissolving into the night. Each one was a glowing orb casting moving shadows of light on the space around them.
"I'm sorry, but I can't take it. Back, mosquitoes, back!" He shouted with animated hands.
A few lightning bugs sparked across the field as they signaled into the night for a mate, and a hoot owl was hunting nearby. A symphony of crickets and tree frogs filled the air. The night was anything but quiet.
"Good luck with that," she said.
"Hey, Ty was askin' about you today." Wade said, then pulled a drink off his water bottle and sat down next to her.
"The young guy on my fishing trip."
"Is that so? What's he, like eighteen?"
Wade stared into the flame thinking. "You know, I don't know how old he is but he's in college. Want me to ask him for you tomorrow? I'm takin' them fly fishin' in the morning on the Cheoah."
Willow sat quietly. She had noticed Ty at the table. His tousled dark black hair and piercing glacier blue eyes. A summertime affair was something she felt a little too old for. She turned thirty this year and felt the weight of it. Single at thirty was never how she had imagined her life. Even though it was nice at times not having commitments to anyone, it was also lonely at times. Anyway, he would be gone in a few days so what was the point? Two back-to-back failed relationships lingered in her mind. The first one broke her heart. The second broke her mind. She wasn't ready to find out what the next one would break. As she remembered her last two relationships and their aftermath, she concluded that thirty and single was better than that any day.
"I had to fire Tanya today," she said, changing the subject.
"Why? What'd she do?" Wade asked, interested in the turn in conversation.
"Stealin' toilet paper from housekeeping." Willow grimaced when she said it out loud.
After a few moments of silence, Wade said. "How bad's it gotta be to steal toilet paper from work? Thanks, Tanya for making me feel better about me tonight."
Willow laughed. She always had a sweet spot for her brother. Even when she was angry at him, he could always make her laugh. They sat together in a comfortable silence that only comes with knowing someone for a lifetime. Their memories didn't include a time without one another. The good and the bad ones. When he reached the bottom of his water, he stood up and stretched his arms up and back, turned from side to side.
"Alright, I'm going in. Gotta be at the lodge at 6 A.M. tomorrow," he said. Willow stood up and put the lids on the tiki torches, extinguishing the fires.
"I'm gettin' eat up out here," she said, and as she walked inside, she turned and looked out into the darkness one last time. A part of her ached to stay there and soak in the night but she wanted to wash off her day in a hot shower. Firing people was the least favorite part of her job. Tanya had done something stupid, but she was desperate. She didn't mention to Wade all the liquor she had stolen or the pills missing from people's rooms. For a while, Willow had watched her because she knew something was going on, but Tanya was clean. Never late for work, even temperament, clear eyes, and a clear mind. Tanya had proven Willow's first instinct incorrect. Tanya wasn't using, but she had started a side hustle of reselling everything she stole from the lodge. She was a single mom who had gotten clean to get her kid back. Some people are forever stuck in the hydraulic of life, never knowing which way is up.
"Hey, be careful tomorrow. That's a slick spot," she said. Wade was already on the couch flipping through Netflix. The pillows that Willow straightened up were in a pile on the floor. Wade flashed her thumbs up without taking his eyes off the television.
"I won't take any unnecessary risks," he said. And at that, she closed the door to her room.